May 31, 2013

Benedict Inn program celebrates 20 years of developing spiritual directors

The graduating class of the Benedict Inn’s Spiritual Direction Internship program recites a prayer at the end of their graduation ceremony at the Benedict in Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove on April 25. Front row, from left: John Hosier, Donna Wenstrup, Mary Ellen Allig, Leslie Miskowiec and Benedictine Sister Julie Sewell. Back row: Father Ben Okonkwo, Barb Dahl, Judy Fackenthal, Ann Littlefield and Melissa Jackson. Graduates Cindy Sturgeon and Deb Doty are not pictured. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

The graduating class of the Benedict Inn’s Spiritual Direction Internship program recites a prayer at the end of their graduation ceremony at the Benedict in Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove on April 25. Front row, from left: John Hosier, Donna Wenstrup, Mary Ellen Allig, Leslie Miskowiec and Benedictine Sister Julie Sewell. Back row: Father Ben Okonkwo, Barb Dahl, Judy Fackenthal, Ann Littlefield and Melissa Jackson. Graduates Cindy Sturgeon and Deb Doty are not pictured. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

BEECH GROVE—Donna Wenstrup never imagined she would fit the description of a spiritual director.

She always considered a spiritual director as someone “older and wiser who could give you advice, who could tell you where you were on the spiritual journey and suggest what the next step is.”

That description changed as Wenstrup studied spiritual direction through the Spiritual Direction Internship (SDI) at the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove on Indianapolis’ south side.

“What I found through the program is very different. [Spiritual direction is] simply asking questions to allow a person to listen for themselves. It’s creating a safe space for people to explore what they are hearing instead of telling them what they are hearing,” Wenstrup explained.

Wenstrup and 10 others are the most recent graduates of the two-year SDI program. The program began in 1991, with the first class graduating in 1993.

This year’s graduating class participated in a prayer and graduation ceremony at the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center on April 25.

The SDI program is designed for people who feel called to guide others in their relationship with God, a practice known as spiritual direction.

According to the website for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, spiritual direction “assists us to distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of error (cf. 1 Jn 4:6) … [It] is of special assistance in discerning the path of holiness and perfection.”

In their book The Practice of Spiritual Direction, Jesuit Fathers William Barry and William Connolly describe spiritual direction as “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of that relationship.”

SDI applicants must submit an essay on their spiritual life, have three references including a pastor, and have an interview with SDI director Benedictine Sister Julie Sewell before being accepted into the program.

“We’ll ascertain their theological background to see if they’re prepared. They have to be an active member of their parish, and they really need to have been in spiritual direction themselves for at least six months,” Sister Julie said.

Participants come from near and far for the program. Wenstrup made the weekly trip each semester from Terre Haute, where she is director of religious education at St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes.

According to Sister Julie, the class size ranges from 12-20. She estimated that 75-80 percent of the participants are Catholic, but those of other Christian faith traditions are welcome and also participate.

The two-year program has four semesters, running from September through mid-November and January through March.

Each semester revolves around an aspect of spiritual direction. The first semester covers the art of spirituality, including the history of spirituality, Scripture and the spiritual journey, praying with Scripture and with others.

The second semester looks at the spiritual journey, with presentations covering Catholic giants such as St. Benedict and contemplative listening, St. John of the Cross and the dark night, St. Teresa of Avila and intimacy, a look at the desert fathers, and more.

Psychological aspects of the spiritual journey are explored during the third semester, including personality types, anger, self-esteem and family impacts, among others.

The last semester deals with issues in spiritual direction, such as resistance, aging and grieving.

“We do really well helping them understand some of the issues people meet in life, like grief, loss, forgiveness and others—how to deal with those in a way that’s helpful but not like a counselor,” said Benedictine Sister Antoinette Purcell. Sister Antoinette is one of the SDI instructors, of which nearly all are Catholic. She has been an instructor in the program for 10 years and is a graduate of the program.

In the second through fourth semesters, students receive practical experience through the program’s spiritual direction practicum.

“In the practicum piece, they provide spiritual direction to each other,” Sister Julie explained. “There are always two facilitators per group who facilitate the process. They give feedback and tips, and class members also observe and give feedback. The process helps each of them pick up on tips and also know what not to do.”

Sister Julie sees the practicum piece as vital.

“We need to think of the good of all parties involved—those giving direction and those eventually receiving. Some programs don’t have a practicum. I can’t imagine setting someone loose to direct people without first having practiced in a protected environment. They do that for a whole semester before I let them work with volunteers.”

Between the first and second year, each student finds volunteer directees, who sign a document acknowledging that their director is in training.

Students then meet with a supervisor throughout the second year to coach them in their spiritual direction outside of class.

“The supervisors are very experienced. From an ethical perspective that’s important for the volunteer directee, so that someone with experience is there to help and protect them,” said Sister Julie.

Dede Swinehart, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, is a graduate of the first SDI class and serves as a supervisor.

“They bring a case of spiritual direction they’ve already done. We focus on something they have a question on or concern about, or look at how they could have done something differently,” said Swinehart.

New SDI graduate John Hosier, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis, was impressed with the program.

“The educational piece was valuable, and the practicum sessions really gave me a chance to grow not only as a person but spiritually, too,” he said. “And it made me more aware of how to relax in that chair and be with that person when I do direction.”

Hosier, who works full time as a quality engineer at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, would not have been able to participate in the program had it not been for the new night track made available in 2011.

Prior to that, the program was only offered during the day, meeting on Tuesdays at the Benedict Inn from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

But the class of 11 that graduated on April 25 marked the first class to graduate from SDI’s new evening track, with classes meeting on Thursday evenings from 4-9 p.m.

“We started offering the night classes in 2011 to accommodate people with day jobs or who needed to be home during the day,” said Sister Julie.

The classes will now alternate by year—a new two-year night group will start this August, and a new two-year day group will start in August 2014.

Swinehart was glad to see the evening track added.

“I’m grateful they’re now offering the night classes so the program is available to more people. And I’m grateful that [SDI] exists and that the sisters have made it a priority as a ministry. In 19 years, think of how many people have gone through the program,” Swinehart said.

“Think of the ripple effect—it changed my life, and hopefully it will change other lives as result.”
 

(For more information on the Spiritual Direction Internship program, contact Sister Julie Sewell at 317-788-7581, ext. 3170, or e-mail Julie@benedictine.com.)

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